I HATE DISHOOM

27/9/2020 ZM

I fucking hate Dishoom. To me, Dishoom represents a wave that’s cresting right now, this move of ~contemporary Indian street food~. These restaurants pop up in zone 1 London, on town centre high streets in Liverpool & Manchester. Maybe they do small plates, maybe the young white waiter tells me ‘it’s Indian tapas? So we recommend 4-6 plates between 2 people :)’. Or maybe they serve it canteen style, all on a tray and in papery fast-casual packaging. Or maybe it’s just a small menu of 5 starters, 5 mains, they’ve not got Coke but they’ve got Karma Cola, £4.50 for one singular fuckin ~roti flatbread~. It’s not just Dishoom, it’s other chains like Masala Zone & Bundobast; it’s one offs like Roti Chai, Soho Wala, Kricket, Kati Roll Company (the list goes fucking on n on); it’s more upscale like Jamavar, Bombay Bustle, Cinnamon Club, Tamarind, and Gunpowder. It’s not even just street food u kno; that’s just terminology that dissolves into PR & marketing copy, SEO keyword and vibey aphorism. It collapses contemporary Indian into street food aesthetics; uses phrases like ~street kitchen~, ~market specials~ and ~hawker-inspired~. It’s lassi in a mason jar, stainless steel serving dishes for the aesthetic only, 70s Bollywood kitschy disco pop plays overhead, there’s a vintage bicycle somewhere in the room, pom pom garlands with little bells on the end; all of that is laid against a hipster industrial aesthetic of exposed brick, piping and rough wood surfaces. Restaurants like this play a specific role, they deploy a specific aesthetic, they ~DO~ a specific thing in the history of Indian food in the UK. N I’m gona tell u about it.

 

Curry houses of the past were defined by colonial history; white tablecloths folded into neat accordions and fine silverware, waiters in shirts, plastic chandeliers, leather backed menus, Ruby Murray. The food was subservient to british taste; korma, jalfrezi, balti are all Bengali inventions, they are the conjured image of what british people might think Indian food is. It’s a cuisine and coherent aesthetic in one; both were defined by India & britain’s historical relationship, the power dynamic that exists between those two places. Bengali-Indian curry houses are a testament to 20th century immigration history and the circumstances that facilitated it. The first significant wave of Bengalis came to the East End of London to work in the textiles industry; in the late 70s when heavy industry was privatised and collapsed, they faced mass redundancies. As a result, many turned to opening their own restaurants and takeaways across the country. Alongside them, Indians came via East Africa in the 60s and 70s; as countries like Kenya, Uganda & Tanzania adopted Africanisation policies, the Indians that were settled there had to choose between expulsion n displacement, or forfeiting the right to british passports. Many chose to come to britain, preferring the stability of the Great Colonial Motherland to the uncertainty of a new regime in East Africa that wouldn’t afford them the same administrative privileges that the british colonial regime did. My mum was born in Nairobi, Kenya; her first passport listed her nationality as british, and her family moved to the UK in 1967 under those same laws. Indian immigrants in that wave set up shops and restaurants, while others settled into white-collar employment. Both waves were precluded by incredible and overt racism from white brits; with work specifically, there was a clear choice between facing explicit discrimination in the employment market, and setting up your own business to just side-step it. Obviously, there are questions about class and economic agency within that ability to set up shop for yourself. But curry houses and Bengali-Indian restaurants were subject to a more implicit pressure towards subjugation, on the market of consumer interest. 

 

White british taste and expectation shaped the food on offer, as well as the aesthetic that made up the specific ambience of a curry house; these restaurants catered to a white british taste, and in turn held whiteness as a central concern. The Indian immigrants that came over from East Africa were coming from countries where they sat in a middle ground; they were privileged with administrative roles in a colonial infrastructure above the local Black population, but never ever equal to the white colonial rulers that dictated the terms of governance. This culinary subservience to white british taste and expectation was built off the back of that existing historical power dynamic, defining the Indian restaurants of that era. They served food that they didn’t eat themselves, at home with family or for their own staff in the kitchen. They literally created a whole new cuisine with white british expectation at its centre. I say this without moral judgement or derision, bc any restaurant that served actual Bengali food back then would’ve flopped; can you imagine tryna sell Rui Maas to a white person in the 80s? 

 

The history of Asian immigrant communities became more settled in the 90s under the Blair government. It was less Enoch Powell Rivers of Blood, less National Front skinheads going out paki-bashing, and more Blairite multiculturalism and the Great melting pot Britain. It was Blair’s Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, that first declared that Chicken Tikka Masala was ‘now a true british national dish’, and it was Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar that sought to give Glasgow EU protected geographical status as its place of origin. There’s a literal Early Day Motion recorded in parliamentary archives that reads, ‘this House records its appreciation of the culinary masterpiece that is chicken tikka masala; notes that it is britain's most popular curry’, which is quite incredibly batshit if you ask me. The Chicken Tikka Masala being seen as symbolic of britain’s race relations/cultural identity at the time (vague ~tolerance~, but requiring assimilation into the wider landscape of british values) follows the trajectory set by Bengali-Indian curry houses and the way they were defined by the wider political and historical contexts they sat within. I’m not reaching when I say that you can read a cultural history, a socio-political position through food. I’ve said it before in <EAT THE RICH>; food is a disembodied signifier, it can speak of or through bodies without being attached to them, and it can be read in this untethering. In that, I am critical and incredibly skeptical about how Dishoom and this wave of ~modern Indian street food~ restaurants are read, what they will say about the communities and context they sit within when we look back at them. We are now post-9/11 and post-woke, Blairite neoliberalism has slipped into a full on far right government, and 9 years ago David Cameron declared that ‘multiculturalism has failed’. So what the fuck does ~contemporary indian~ dining even fucking mean?

 

In the same way that curry houses were defined by their relationship to whiteness, and provided both a cuisine and coherent aesthetic in response; contemporary Indian street food places suffer the same. In terms of aesthetic, they represent a weird merging of a subcontinental arte-povera & a parallel hipster fetishisation of industrial impoverishment. The stainless steel thalis aren’t there for their cheap durability, they’re there because they will make a handsome instagram flatlay; pendant light fittings and exposed piping overhead. There’s a diaspora art sensibility to the way these two aesthetics are thrown together and juxtaposed; the kitschy-folk aesthetic of heavy embroidery and garland strings, and the clean sparseness of hipster minimalism. Sometimes that identification of Diaspora Art undertones is a bit on the nose; in Kentish Town’s Babuji, when you walk down to the toilets, the staircase is lined with HateCopy prints. All this aesthetic does, in fusing the two things together, is nod towards an image of authenticity. Where curry houses conjured a colonial era pretence of grandeur, this aesthetic deploys a more casual assembly. It makes an attempt to condition an impoverished aesthetic, render it familiar and cool, rather than run-down and sincere. It’s incredibly post-modern tbqh. 

 

And then with the food itself, these contemporary street food restaurants are cuttingly symbolic of gentrification trajectories and processes. The upscaling of street food more generally represents the wider hipster search for the elusive ~Authentic~. It’s a colonial approach to things; you’re out there searching for novelty, something raw and real, so you can take it, recondition it and repurpose it as something authored into a familiar shape to you and your cultural specificity. Meanwhile, the original thing is barely recognisable, or only recognisable as something far removed from its original cultural or socio-political context. Regeneration/gentrification, the upscaling of street food - it’s the same force at work, it’s the same colonial n capitalist extraction model that has typified whiteness for centuries. 21st century white (sub)culture specifically is defined by an inability to create anything for itself, instead it’s characterised by a reliance on absorbing elements and remaking them in its own image. Its search for authenticity is prescribed by its inability to produce anything authentic on its own terms. If these contemporary indian street food places mirror that logic of authenticity, then as with the curry houses of the past, they are both defined by a cultural centrality of white taste and expectation. 

 

The problem specifically with this drive towards authenticity, is that it never engages with the ~’authentic’~ subject it is seeking. Rather than meaningfully considering what makes up the original dishes, why they work and how they work; it seeks to redeploy the shallowest components of them. It primarily focuses on aesthetic and signifier; Dishoom describes its Vada Pav as ‘Bombay's version of London's Chip Butty’. This description rests on physical likeness and equivalence, rather than engaging with its functional origin: as a handheld train platform snack for Bombay’s factory workers and commuter class. It skips over its historic and cultural significance: as a pav (a bun) dish, how pavs are a staple part of Maharastra’s urban, working-class food culture, how it’s a Portugese word that references the state’s history of colonial intervention, and how industrial histories in cities like Bombay & Pune have driven its ubiquity in the state’s food landscape. Chip butties have a similar history and origin too; but somehow in that description, both things are collapsed and stripped of any socio-political context that could inform them, or tie them to the living breathing people that eat them every day. It’s not just Dishoom that collapses and obliterates those specificities, I’ve seen vada pavs called ~Bombay burgers~ and other infuriatingly vague and bizarre names in other places. 

 

That’s why I hate Dishoom; because rather than engage with regional specificity to honour it with a kind of political and thoughtful refinement, it engages with regional specificity to repurpose it into a blander, whiter version of itself. It’s not better, it’s just more effective at catering to the expectations of a contemporary white public. In my mind, at least Bengali-Indian curry houses knew there was nothing authentic about themselves; there was a thrill in the duplicity and hustle of serving your staff a completely different menu to your white customers. Places like Dishoom are representative in a hollow and painful way; of an aspirational urbane Asian middle class, that is divorced from their ancestral history and culture, actively seeking assimilation and acceptance from a white establishment. ~contemporary indian~ speaks more to the asian relationship with whiteness, our current proximity and adjacency to it, as well as about contemporary metropolitan whiteness itself. Dishoom opened in London, but now has chains in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. Bundobast is in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Mowgli is in Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham, Cardiff and Leeds. Glasgow has got a string of stand-alone examples in Tuk Tuk, Chaakoo Bombay Cafe and Usha’s. And quite frankly, London’s list never fucking ends; it spans across scale, from fast-casual to upscale fine dining. This is a cosmopolitan trend, these street-food places pop up where there’s a significant (and potentially middle-class) Asian community that has a history of interaction and integration with white communities. In these towns and cities, Bengali curry houses have been surpassed as lowbrow and janky trope, in favour of places that present the pristinely engineered image of authenticity. I think this tells us a lot about white culture in these places; that white people in the UK’s big cities are self-aware of their own whiteness, but fundamentally unwilling to deconstruct it in any meaningful way, or recoil from it in order to actually experience something authentic on someone else’s terms. I think it also tells us that Asian communities are no longer defined by a predominantly working-class experience in the way they once were; since the 60s & 70s, social mobility has happened to some, often drawn along the lines of religion, region and caste. The current Tory government is packed full of asians that have no problem enacting hostile environment policies that’d see their own parents deported. And while I hate the model minority myth, it’s not looking all that untrue when you read it alongside class categories and the identity markers that inform the workings of class in the UK diaspora. 

 

In this sweeping generalisation of Brit-Asian culinary history, I’m obviously speaking about the food and the restaurants that emerge into the mainstream of the Great British Food Imaginary. While all of this was (and is) happening, there have been (and are) restaurants that existed to cater to Asian immigrant communities, their tastes, their conception of familiarity and their homesickness. Maru’s Bhajia House has been on Ealing Road since the mid-70s; my mum remembers meeting her sister there for lunch on weekdays, it was the halfway point between her college and the office in Alperton where my masi worked. The Black Country has a long history of Asian pubs; they’ve existed since the 70s too, serving Asian foundry workers after their shifts, at a time when colour bars precluded their access to white pubs. These sites - in Wembley, East Ham, Southall, Smethwick, Sparkhill, Handsworth, Pollokshields & Melton Road - they are defined by a working class Asian experience and history. Any question about ~authenticity~ is misplaced; authenticity is a concern for a white public in search of novelty, and these places don’t include a white centre. And that’s what I wish could happen within the mainstream. Where Dishoom & the like describe an aspirational assimilationist compromise, there are restaurants in Pinner that represent a kind of wild autonomy and happy agency within those disparate points. 

 

Though I hate Dishoom and all those other Indian contemporary places, I still wish they were better, happier, settled and different. It’s not that I hate the mainstream, I just wish it wasn’t so totally defined by the whims of a white public. I wish I didn’t feel icky about the fetishisation of authenticity; I wish that authentic wasn’t even a term we had to navigate in the first place; I wish I could take you all to a Gujarati sports bar and tell you about the East African specificity of mogo & Zanzibar mix over a long pint of Kingfisher; I wish there were fucking dabeli spots in zone 1 that slap as hard as the ones in Kingsbury. I think I wish we were the centre.

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